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Rising Star

Stephanie Rawlings-Blake is the daughter of one of the state’s most legendary politicians. But she’s shown enough skill, judgment, and smarts on her way to City Hall to prove that she’s capable of creating her own legacy.

Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has been trying to fix Baltimore since she was six years old.

“If a kid was walking down the street and dropped a Popsicle stick or a candy wrapper,” recalls her mother, retired pediatrician Nina Rawlings, “she would chase after them and make them pick it up and tell them, ‘We have to keep our city clean!'”

“In the household, she never ever lost an argument,” her mom continues. “Whatever it was, she could figure out the logic of the situation, and it would make sense.”

“I was a very bossy little kid,” admits Rawlings-Blake, 38. “Back then, in much the same way people wait around for the Oscars, I always considered my birthday party the event of the year.”

One year, the party featured home-made grape chewing gum. Another time, partygoers ate freeze-dried ice cream like astronauts did. And then there was the election party.

“She had Democrats, Republicans, and independents,” Nina Rawlings recalls. “The children would vote on who they wanted based on what was their slate. Some of the children’s slates were no homework, candy every day. Stephanie’s slate was something like clean streets and more swimming pools and playgrounds.”

Rawlings-Blake’s education in the hardball world of real-life Baltimore politics began at birth. She’s the daughter of Howard “Pete” Rawlings, the legendary state delegate who represented Maryland’s 40th legislative district for a quarter century. Even before he was first elected in 1978, Rawlings made his home a crucible of activism in a politically connected neighborhood whose residents have included judges and politicians, including three-time Mayor Kurt Schmoke. Regular visitors included state Senator Verda Welcome, young Councilman Kweisi Mfume, and now-Mayor Sheila Dixon before she was elected to City Council in 1987.

Rawlings-Blake says campaigning for her father—getting out and knocking on doors—was actually fun. “I was one of his best volunteers because I was good. I was compelling as a young child passing out literature. I wasn’t babyish as a young person,” she remembers. “I knew what to say.”

His work in office further cemented their father-daughter bond. “A lot of the time I spent with my father growing up was going to Annapolis with him, going to political events with him,” she says. “I went to more events than the rest of my family.”

And it became clear early on that her aspiration was to become the political powerhouse that her father was—and more. She surprised her father and everyone else with her song choice for their father-daughter dance at her October 2000 wedding to Kent Blake: “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better.”

“He didn’t even know it!” recalls Nina Rawlings. “It was hilarious. The people just burst out laughing. I had not a clue what they were going to dance to.”

Her strong-willed tendencies and self-assured nature got a reality check in 1987, when an Outward Bound trip to western Maryland and West Virginia forced her to become more of a team player. Ignoring the packing checklist for the month of hiking, boating, and rock climbing, she brought items like hair rollers and a curling iron.

“I had hair gel, because I had just gotten highlights. I had outfits with matching pink bandannas,” she says. “After they rummaged through my things, and made me leave just about everything, we went on a little run—through the hills of Leakin Park.”

She learned to work with others in pressure situations. For example, her group was faced with an injured teammate, and had to decide how to divvy up that teammate’s supplies to be carried. It was the perfect life lesson for someone seemingly destined to enter the political arena.

“It was fantastic for me, in hindsight. My dad would always say I went there a monster, I came back a real person,” she says. “It helped to develop your mind to overcome obstacles. It happened over and over in different situations.”

Her mother remembers a huge change, too.

“She came back with the knowledge that ‘I’m not the only one who can do everything,'” says Nina Rawlings. “She realized that other people had significant contributions, too. Before, she would home in on the problem, see what was needed, and couldn’t understand why other people couldn’t. Now she could listen to other people. I am amazed.”

In 1995, fresh out of the University of Maryland Law School, Rawlings-Blake launched her first bid for city council. Her friends ran a statistical analysis of where to find likely Rawlings-Blake voters, and then spent the summer knocking on their doors. In a crowded field, her father’s name and advice helped a lot.

“It was easier for me because I started off with the advantage of having a very well known last name and an influential father,” she says. “I didn’t depend on him to run it, to finance it. I had access to his donors, but access gets you in the door. You have to close the deal.”

She won, and soon found a friendly face at City Hall that belonged to a young councilman named Martin O’Malley, who remembered how intimidating the first few months in office can be. “I reached out to Stephanie, and we became good friends,” he says today. “And when I ran for mayor, she was instrumental to me.”

It was a shrewd move, as it turned out, because Rawlings-Blake convinced her father to support O’Malley in his 1999 bid for mayor. Having Pete Rawlings’ support helped O’Malley defeat two African-American candidates, Carl Stokes and Lawrence Bell, in the Democratic primary, which is the de facto general election in heavily-Democratic Baltimore City.

“I told [my father] he didn’t raise me not to acknowledge who was the best candidate, just because of the color of his skin,” she says. “I told him that he and I and my mother had made too many sacrifices and paid too many student loans to be a racist. And while it was a majority African-American city, it was clear [that] out of the individuals that were interested in the position, that [O’Malley] was the best person for the job.” She arranged a meeting with her father, and he eventually endorsed O’Malley on the War Memorial steps despite an opponent’s boisterous counter-rally.

For an African-American woman to back a white man for mayor in Baltimore in 1999—given the racial under- (and over-) tones of the 1995 re-election of Mayor Schmoke over City Council President Mary Pat Clarke—is an example of either astute political savvy or incredible self-confidence. Maybe it’s both. Rawlings-Blake says O’Malley didn’t ask for her support: It was simply the right thing to do.

“If it’s a choice between my own personal advancement and the city being the best that it could be, I would not make the city more vulnerable because I was afraid to be vulnerable myself,” she says. “I thought the greater risk was for the city that I loved … That we have the best out of the possible contenders to be in leadership. While I understood that it was probably not the most popular thing, I wasn’t raised to consider what would make me politically vulnerable [as a reason] not to do something.”

Though she’s learned how to be a canny political force, she hasn’t lost touch with her mischievous side. When asked how she met her husband, Kent Blake, she replies, “Do you want the clean version?”

As a freshman at mostly-white Oberlin College, a girlfriend invited her on a road trip to see friends at historically black colleges in Atlanta. Outside the cafeteria on the all-male Morehouse College campus, they waited at the “meat rack,” a span of sidewalk where guys would lean against a railing and watch women walk by. After Blake approached her and struck up a conversation, they discovered that their parents knew each other (his father is a pediatrician, as is her mother). They dated until their senior year, when the long-distance relationship fizzled.

Seven years later, she was on the Baltimore City Council, and his best friend saw her on TV. “Man, you were such a dope,” he told Blake. “I saw your ex-girlfriend on television. You really screwed up.”

They got back together in January 1999 and married less than two years later. She and Blake (he’s also 38, and works in sales at Comcast) have a daughter, Sophia. Like many 4-year-olds with working mothers, Sophia likes to come to Mommy’s office, except that sometimes it means sitting though hearings at City Hall. “She has her ‘business papers,’ and she takes them very seriously,” Rawlings-Blake says. “Afterwards, I have to scurry around and see if anything important is missing.”

But some days are too busy, and her time is too tightly scheduled from sunup to past sundown to see much of her family.

“On days Sophia doesn’t come down and visit, she’s with my mom until I’m done, and we just make it work,” she says. “I was telling a friend, I’m blessed to have a husband with low expectations, but I was just joking. Kent has known me since I was 18, and he knows when I’m too stressed out and not to talk about anything.”

In November 2006, Rawlings-Blake got her biggest political chance yet. O’Malley’s election to governor automatically elevated Council President Sheila Dixon to mayor, which meant one of the top seats in city government was open. Fellow council members voted to elect Rawlings-Blake as their acting leader, and she left the public defender’s office to focus on council work (she served as a defense attorney for nine years). Officially elected to the position by Baltimore voters in last fall’s citywide election, Rawlings-Blake says she’s now trying to change how the council does business.

“I want to find a way for us to work together better and more as partners with our constituents,” she says. “Our constituents did not see the council as a place where they could find solutions to their problems.”

One way Rawlings-Blake says she has changed things is by turning council committees into idea-generating advisory groups—not just a place to work through related bills.

To come up with better community development ideas, for example, Rawlings-Blake told the related subcommittee to look around the city and think of ways to link the many aid groups to the many needs. “I often feel like the resources and the need are living next door to each other,” she says. As head of the education committee, Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke has charged ahead under this directive, Rawlings-Blake says, offering useful advice and counsel.

As City Council president, Rawlings-Blake chairs the city’s Board of Estimates, which controls the city’s finances. Ironically, that’s the only area in which Rawlings-Blake has been less than a complete success. She’s had several rounds of financial trouble herself, many of which were brought to light in City Paper last year during her run for her current office.

She has been sued personally five times in the past 10 years—including twice by her condo association—for a total of more than $13,000. The suits include a foreclosure proceeding on her home, a split-level unit she bought in 1997 in a modern complex next to the Cylburn Arboretum. Michael S. Neall, the Coldspring Condominium Association’s lawyer, said the monthly condo maintenance fees were eventually paid, and the suit was dropped.

In 2005, Capital One Bank sued Rawlings-Blake for $1,884.89, saying she hadn’t paid for “merchandise, services and/or … a cash advance.” Stephen G. Peroutka, the bank’s attorney, later dropped the case. Peroutka’s office manager refused to comment.

The most recent incident came when her mortgage company sued for foreclosure. A sale scheduled for March 3, 2006, was canceled and the property reinstated, said a spokeswoman for the mortgage company’s lawyer.

Rawlings-Blake discussed her legal and financial problems last summer with City Paper during the election race, and while she will talk about them again, the reason for the missteps is not a happy one. “It was a difficult time. My father was very sick [he died in November 2003],” she says from home during a February ice storm. “I was stretched to the limits, and some things fall through the cracks. It was a very personal matter that has been resolved. And again, if you feel that helps people get an understanding of who I am, then so be it. I consider it very private, and I certainly don’t think it interferes with my ability to do my job.”

Just about the only criticism of Rawlings-Blake from her fellow politicians deals with just how much independence the city council president ought to show toward the mayor.

“It matters who’s in that office because if you have a rubber stamper, then you’re fighting on two fronts. The legislative and the executive branch have to have some kind of tension going for everybody to be productive,” says Clarke, who became the first female council president in 1987.

Given Dixon and Rawlings-Blake’s decade on the council together, their collegiality is only natural, Clarke says. Nevertheless, Rawlings-Blake is “very much her own person,” Clarke says. “I haven’t seen her say, ‘Gee whiz, I wonder if this would be okay.'”

Councilwoman Rochelle “Rikki” Spector says the affable relationship between Rawlings-Blake, Dixon, and O’Malley is a benefit for Baltimore.

“She has a terrific working relationship with the mayor and now with the governor,” Spector says. “Their stars are lined up. They have been a good working team for a long time.”

One of Rawlings-Blake’s opponents last fall, former City Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr., says the council president needs more independence in a city whose charter tilts the balance of power in favor of the mayor.

“It’s good to have a council that is … able to balance the mayor’s desires and way of running of government,” said Harris, who finished third in the September primary. As for how she’s doing now, Harris hedged.

“Last year was a transitional year, and we were all running for re-election,” Harris says. “The verdict is out in terms of what her style and her relationship with the mayor would be.”

Rawlings-Blake says she strikes the right balance between independence and working together. She says she is pushing the mayor’s office to beef up its strategy on youth violence, for example. She asked specifically that Mayor Dixon draw up a list of agencies dealing with the problem as a first step to change how money is spent on it. She also points to the decline in mayor-council acrimony that occurred when O’Malley took over.

“When O’Malley was mayor, there was a decision—we all agreed that there was a direction that the city could go. Did we agree on every step that was taken? No. That doesn’t mean that we couldn’t agree on what was true,” she says. “When someone makes that kind of blanket unsubstantiated claim about my independence, they should do that with a [real] example of how working together has hurt our city.”

A recent Thursday morning found the city council president hop-scotching the city with appearances every hour. On the way from her 9 a.m. event at Coppin State University to her 10 a.m. appearance downtown, she witnessed a car crash. “She got out and checked on the drivers,” says Shaun Adamec, her communications director, who rode with the council president.

In a window-lined 16th-floor conference room in the Baltimore Development Corporation’s downtown office, Rawlings-Blake sat in on the monthly meeting of the Park Heights Working Group. “If there’s anything my office or the council can do,” she told the collection of neighborhood and business leaders working to revive the Northwest Baltimore neighborhood, “We’re here to make sure this is a success.”

Her driver then deftly navigated from downtown to Morgan State University in less than 15 minutes. Rawlings-Blake checked her Blackberry, reviewed the day’s schedule, and studied the speech she was delivering in the school’s sparkling new arts building.

Speaking to a rapt audience in a half-full auditorium, Rawlings-Blake drew inspiration from Frederick Douglass, exhorting students to ignore cynics who have similarly low expectations of them.

In a city that’s still facing the seemingly insurmountable and intertwined challenges of poverty, poor education, and crime, the message of beating the odds rings true—even if it is coming from a rising star who happens to be daughter of one of the city’s greatest politicians.